The waxing and waning of lunar cycles has been of interest to many cultures throughout history. It has also been a guiding force for women, both literally and spiritually. In the 1970’s, The Jewish feminist movement reclaimed an ancient Jewish practice of women celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. This session will explore the origins of ancient Moon Myth and Ritual, remnants of which can still be detected in the traditions of Rosh Chodesh. The presentation above was put together by Rabbi Suri Krieger, spiritual leader of Chavurah Beth Chai in Westchester, New York. She also teaches Religion and Judaism at Sacred Heart University. It was presented live on November 16th, 2013.You may reach her at rabbisuri@gmail.com

“And in your new moons you shall present a burnt offering to God: two young bullocks, and one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish” (Numbers 28: 11-15). “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings; and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God” (Numbers 6:6).

Long ago, the appearance of the new moon each month was attested by witnesses. Once their testimony was deemed credible, fires were set on the hilltops to announce the new month to neighboring communities who, in turn, passed the message along. This system proved both dangerous and cumbersome, and once Jews lived outside Israel, it was inadequate.

Rosh Chodesh is the monthly celebration of the New Moon, according to the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar follows lunar months, each with 29 or 30 days, although the year is solar. Some scholars believe that lunar months derive from ancient nomadic calendars and solar years are the invention of agricultural societies; the Jewish calendar combines the two. Many Jewish festivals are tied to the lunar cycle; for example Sukkot and Passover begin on the full moon, in the middle of the month. Since 12 lunar months do not add up to one complete solar year, additional “leap months” are added into the calendar in seven years out of a 19-year cycle.

In the Babylonian Talmud (BT Hagigah 18a), Rosh Hodesh is mentioned as a holiday when one is allowed to perform work (unlike the Sabbath, for instance). However, elsewhere in the Talmud (BT Megillah 22b), Rosh Hodesh is cited as a holiday on which people did not work, and therefore could remain in the synagogue for a longer Torah reading service. The contradiction is resolved by the medieval talmudic commentators’ explanation that men were permitted to perform work on Rosh Hodesh, but women were not.

Rosh Chodesh has long been recognized as a women’s holiday. In the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Megillah 22b], we read that women are exempt from work on Rosh Chodesh. Rashi, on commenting on this passage, delineates the activities from which they may refrain: spinning, weaving, and sewing, because these are the skills which women so enthusiastically contributed to the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Why do women merit a special holiday once a month? In midrash Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer, chapter 45, we are told that in the incident of the Golden Calf, the women refused to relinquish their earrings to the men who were building the calf. As a reward, God gave them an extra holy day each month, free from work. It is customary to wear new clothing on Rosh Chodesh, in celebration of the day’s special character..

Rosh Chodesh is announced on the Shabbat prior with a special benediction recited during the Torah Service. Rosh Chodesh, itself, is celebrated with a partial Hallel, musaf (in remembrance of the extra sacrifice brought on Rosh Chodesh), and Ya’aleh V’yavo is added to the Amidah and Birkhat HaMazon. In addition, the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh falling on Shabbat is from Isaiah 66, a passage which employs fertility imagery to describe God and Zion as life-bearers, providing nurturance to the people Israel; the passage further prophesies a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh in the future..

During the period of Syrian-Greek persecution that culminated in the story of Chanukah, Rosh Chodesh was one of three commandments whose observance the oppressors prohibited. The other two were the Sabbath and circumcision.